Towards a new security consciousness in Japan?

Author: Tobias Harris

During Japan’s 2009 general election campaign, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) ran on a platform calling for a more ‘equal’ relationship with the United States. While the party’s leaders left the meaning of the phrase vague, the general idea was that a DPJ government would be more assertive in defending Japan’s national interests in its dealings with the US, arguing that under the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Japan was too submissive when the US came asking for help in Afghanistan and Iraq.

The first test of the DPJ’s new approach to US-Japan relations was the dispute over the US Marine air station at Futenma in Okinawa. According to a 2006 bilateral agreement that was reaffirmed in early 2009 by an outbound LDP government, the US would relocate some 8,000 US Marines plus their dependents to Guam, while vacating Futenma for a replacement facility built at Henoko Bay near Camp Schwab, another Marine base. While in opposition, the DPJ drafted an ‘Okinawa vision’ paper that called for a process of moving the air base out of Okinawa, and then out of the country. While the DPJ backed away from this program in its electoral manifesto—where, in addition to calling for an equal relationship with the US, it promised only that it would ‘review’ the agreement on the realignment of US forces in Japan—the new Hatoyama government, pressed by the Obama administration to accept the agreement or provide a viable alternative, struggled for months to find an alternative as the Okinawan people demonstrated against the Marines staying in their prefecture and as Washington worried about former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama’s ‘dithering.’

At the end of May, Hatoyama ultimately decided to accept a modified version of the original agreement, with the exact details about the replacement facility to be hammered out in negotiations with the US.

It is a matter of opinion whether that decision marks the failure of the DPJ’s promise of a more equal relationship or a step in the right direction as the government was able, despite US pressure, to conduct a review of a controversial policy on its own timeline. However, there were worrying signs for Japan’s future in the DPJ government’s approach to the Futenma dispute. Even as the government debated a policy matter with implications for US deterrent power in the region, and therefore Japan’s security, it rarely couched its arguments in these terms, despite an audience in Washington that thinks almost entirely in these terms. It was only late in the review process, when it appeared that the government was preparing to accept the existing agreement, that the prime minister began talking about the deterrent capabilities of the Marines—at which point few were convinced by the argument.

The vast distance separating the US military from all other militaries, including those of its allies, means that there really is no such thing as an equal security relationship with the US. However, if Japan is going to disagree with the US constructively—a Japan that can say ‘No, but…’—its leaders must be able to speak the language of realpolitik convincingly. By being unable to articulate Japan’s security policy independent on the US, its leaders remain dependent on the US.

The DPJ government is not the first Japanese government to struggle with this problem. Ishiba Shigeru, a leading LDP politician who has twice served as minister for defence, writes in his book of politicians uninterested in national defence, criticising fellow LDP members for focusing only on the size of the defence budget and not on why Japan has a defence budget in the first place. Japanese leaders, to say nothing of the public, have long been insulated from the Self-Defence forces of which they were nominally in charge.

Accordingly, any discussion of Japan’s taking greater responsibility for its own defence—especially spending more on the SDF—must begin with changing Japanese security discourse. The Japanese public and its representatives have to first understand the value of the SDF before they will comfortably support more defence spending or new roles for the SDF.

It is questionable, however, whether the rising generation of Japanese politicians is any more capable of articulating Japanese security policy before the Japanese public and in dialogue with the US. Although a number of taboos surrounding discussions of security policy appear to have fallen, what Ishiba points to as the obsession with the cost of national defence may prove to be more resilient, particularly as Japan faces its mounting debt and its aging population. It may take more than mere sabre-rattling by China or North Korea to change this underlying brake on the development of a Japanese ‘security consciousness’.

This is an article from the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly: ‘Next generation on Asia’.